by Pat Kramer
New drugs called aromatase inhibitors have brought much-needed hope to women with breast cancer, yet tumor cells often become resistant to the drugs and eventually find a way around them.
Scientists do not understand why or how that happens, but City of Hope aspiring molecular biologist Selma Masri is striving for answers. The National Cancer Institute so believes in her potential that it recently awarded her the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Predoctoral Fellowship.
Masri works in the laboratory of Shiuan Chen, Ph.D., director of the Department of Surgical Research, who is known for mentoring young researchers. His lab is an incubator for future scientists, especially those working toward their doctorate.
Thanks to Chen’s support, three of the four predoctoral students in his lab now have highly sought-after fellowships that fund their research. Masri’s fellowship will sustain her work for four years.
“Selma is a very bright young woman who works very hard,” said Chen. “The NIH predoctoral fellowship is pretty prestigious and very difficult to get.”
Masri first joined Chen’s lab as a research associate in 2002 after earning her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from Pomona College. When she enrolled in the City of Hope Graduate School of Biological Sciences in 2004, she returned to Chen’s lab to work on her doctoral thesis.
“I love the lab,” said Masri. “I love working with my mentor, Shiuan Chen, so it was a good fit for me to come back to the lab. He had an idea for a project that has been cooking in the lab for a while and it was really interesting to me. I was lucky; it was the right place at the right time.”
Masri believes she received the fellowship because the lab focuses on translational research. “It combines basic science in the lab with clinical research,” she said. “We are dealing with a clinical problem in the lab on a basic science level. Drug resistance is a really big problem. If we can make a small contribution, that would be really interesting.”
As Masri notes, aromatase inhibitors work by blocking the production of estrogen that many breast cancers need to thrive. However, cancer cells can eventually circumvent the drugs. The group hypothesizes that cancer cells adapt by developing a way to grow independent of estrogen, resulting in aggressive tumors that do not respond to hormone therapy.
In the lab, Masri and her colleagues are studying breast cancer cells that have grown resistant to aromatase inhibitors; they also will use microarrays to find gene expression patterns linked to drug resistance. Scientists hope their efforts will lead to a greater understanding of cancer cells’ drug-evading tactics and eventually result in new treatment options.
Graduate students in the Chen lab have earned recognition for their commitment to aromatase inhibitor research. Fifth-year students Ikuko Kijima and Yanyan Hong previously received pre-doctoral fellowships from the California Breast Cancer Program.
“I’m very happy with the students I have,” said Chen. “I think City of Hope recruits very high-quality students. City of Hope provides a really good environment for them to help them be successful, to generate papers and to get fellowships to support their work.
“My job is to train them to help them go in the right direction. We try to provide them with the environment to do the proper training so later they can move on to the next level.”